the pains of short form writing

I think this anecdote is amusing:

In the Winter 1986 issue of The Paris Review, before Obreht could write and before Wallace had published his first novel, that American master, E. L. Doctorow, sat down with George Plimpton for the quarterly’s “The Art of Fiction” interview series.  For the first time in the series’ history, the interview was conducted in public at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and Doctorow drew an audience of about 500 according to the Review.

After a brief introduction, Plimpton and Doctorow sat across from one another, and Plimpton, who found Doctorow “retiring,” began. “You once told me that the most difficult thing for a writer to write was a simple household note to someone coming to collect the laundry, or instructions to a cook,” he said.  At this, Doctorow launched into an anecdote about a time when one of his daughters came downstairs before school and asked for an absence note.  “So I wrote down the date and I started, Dear Mrs. So-and-so, my daughter Caroline . . . and then I thought, No, that’s not right, obviously it’s my daughter Caroline. I tore that sheet off, and started again.”  Soon, Doctorow found himself knee-deep in drafts, panicking, while his daughter’s bus driver leaned on the horn outside.  “Writing is immensely difficult,” he told Plimpton at the end of the anecdote, “The short forms especially.”

We should add to our “tips for writers” list that good writers never stop being self-critical.


Written by brayden king

April 18, 2011 at 4:07 pm

One Response

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  1. Having broken into some magazines by starting with the Letters columm, I like to think that I do well at the short form. It is a tough medium, especially for those successful at exposition and narrative. An apocryphal statement attributed to Woodrow Wilson has it that a 5-minute statement took him hours to write, but that he was ready for the State of the Union right now. I believe that Sarah Palin is not alone in being able to hold your attention by talking until she can think of something to say. Undergraduate term papers also too often fit that model.


    Michael E. Marotta

    April 20, 2011 at 4:42 pm

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